“We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity… For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.” – President Barack Obama, inaugural address, January 21, 2013
In 2013, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia celebrates its 10-year anniversary as the museum of “We the People.” The Center demonstrated its ability to live up to that title last year when it marked a major milestone: the acquisition of Justin Dart Jr.’s wheelchair, which he used while sitting alongside the Reverend Harold Wilke, Sandra Parrino, Evan Kemp and the Center’s former chairman, President George H.W. Bush, as the president signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990.
Now displayed in the Center’s main exhibition, this meaningful artifact will allow the museum—in our next decade, and beyond—to better illuminate the experiences of all Americans and the constitutional ideals of freedom and active citizenship. To quote ADA pioneer Senator Tom Harkin, in his statement for the Congressional Record: “This wheelchair will remind visitors of the visionary leadership and inspired advocacy of Justin Dart Jr., and the courageous struggle of all those in the Disability Rights Movement who fought to pass the ADA, one of the great civil rights laws of the 20th century.”
The Center proudly unveiled Justin Dart Jr.’s wheelchair on July 28, 2012, during Philadelphia’s first-ever Disability Pride Day Celebration. The daylong event was inspired by disability rights singer-songwriter, policy analyst, and activist Alan Holdsworth and hosted by the Center, in partnership with Liberty Resources, a center for independent living in Philadelphia, and Vision for EQuality, an advocacy organization, and in collaboration with numerous organizations including ADAPT, DIA, and the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University. Taking place the same week as the ADA’s 22nd anniversary, the Disability Pride Celebration brought together some of the preeminent leaders of the disability rights movement including Justin’s beloved wife and partner in activism, Yoshiko Dart. After many years of collaboration and friendship between Yoshiko and Liberty Resources CEO Thomas Earle, the Center is able to share in the disability rights journey and help to tell this important story.
In addition to bringing together numerous disability rights organizations and leaders, the event drew thousands of people to Philadelphia’s Independence Mall. The Center’s main exhibition hall was packed with visitors as Yoshiko spoke eloquently about her late husband’s legacy. As one of the organizers of the event, I was honored to help present Yoshiko with a signed, framed letter from President George H.W. Bush, who considered the passage of the ADA one of the major achievements of his presidency. As he wrote in his letter to Yoshiko, “It is fitting you have chosen to donate Justin’s wheelchair to the National Constitution Center where it will serve both as a tribute to Justin and as a poignant reminder to all that ‘We the People’ includes all the people.”
The Disability Pride Day Celebration also featured a diverse array of artists, athletes, and support organizations, including musician and composer of the “ADA Anthem” Jeff Moyer; nationally recognized documentary photographers Tom Olin and Harvey Finkle; Matrix Theatre Company, with their large-scale Justin Dart puppet; and the Magee Sixers wheelchair basketball team. The Center’s vice chairman, Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia, moderated a dynamic panel discussion that brought together a remarkable lineup of disability rights activists, the majority of whom were present at the ADA’s signing: Janine Bertram Kemp, Lex Frieden (who joined the conversation via robotic telepresence), Andy Imparato, Cassie James-Holdsworth, Joseph Rogers, and Erik von Schmetterling. The celebration culminated in a Disability Pride March beginning at the National Constitution Center and ending in front of the iconic Liberty Bell.
After the overwhelming success of last year’s Disability Pride Celebration, the second annual event is scheduled to take place at Franklin Square in Philadelphia on June 22, 2013, coinciding with the anniversary of the Olmstead decision. As the National Constitution Center looks toward the years to come, we have committed to honoring the ADA as part of our calendar of civic holidays. And as we approach the ADA’s 25th anniversary in 2015, we draw inspiration from Justin Dart Jr.’s legacy of united advocacy and civic action as our definition of “We the People” grows broader and stronger.
Kathleen Cohen is the vice president of digital innovation and integration at the National Constitution Center.